Among the many visually entrancing scenes in Batman Begins, Christopher Nolan’s grand and mesmerizing tale of how Bruce Wayne became Batman, perhaps the most striking are those of Batman standing motionless on the perches of tall buildings. Shrouded in darkness, looking downward, a sentinel who blends perfectly into the environment, the Dark Knight resembles the gargoyles from the great medieval cathedrals. Director of the justly acclaimed films Memento and Insomnia, Nolan’s version of the Batman legend results in a superb film, a film that repeatedly takes great risks and, except when it falls prey to the temptation to turn Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) into a philosopher of the death and rebirth of great American cities, almost always reaches the heights to which it aspires.
In Nolan’s version, the figure of the Batman–selected by Bruce Wayne as a “dramatic example…an elemental symbol” to turn violence and ugliness against those who trade in violence and ugliness–functions as a gargoyle in a Godless city, a creature of darkness protecting the innocent from other creatures of darkness, in a city bereft of any natural or religious framework for justice or hope. The buildings from which Batman overlooks the city are like cathedrals stripped of all their symbolism except that provided by the menacing bat. That Batman-style justice is the best we can do in such a context is made clear in a terrific scene where Batman seizes and interrogates a criminal. To convince Batman that he’s telling him the truth, the criminal screams, “I swear to God.” Batman gets right in his face and angrily demands, “Swear to me.”
An early scene in the film introduces the central theme of fear; since every viewer knows what Bruce Wayne will become, it also hints at the answer to the question of how to overcome fear–become what one fears. A young Bruce Wayne tumbles down a well and into a bat cave, where alarmed bats swarm over him, leaving him haunted by nightmares.
Not long after this event, the affluent and dignified Wayne family travels to Gotham to attend an evening performance at the opera, whose story sparks in Bruce bad memories of the bat attack. Leaving early from the theater, the Wayne family enters the filthy, desolate, crime-ridden streets to encounter a mugger who shoots both parents. In a marvelously edited scene, a petrified Bruce stands amid the crumpled bodies of his parents, as his father breathes his last words, “Don’t be afraid.”
From the opening, rather distant shots of Gotham through Batman’s infiltration of the city to the final, sizzling chase scene, Gotham is magnificently rendered, fully realizing Nolan’s wishes for Gotham as “New York cubed,” a city in which you find yourself “completely immersed to the point that you do not feel its boundaries.” In early scenes, the city has the look and feel of the American metropolis in Charles Bronson’s Death Wish films, with trash strewn everywhere, dilapidated buildings, and desperate figures stealthily moving about.
Fear & Liberalism, Justice & Conservatism
The generation gap between the Wayne parents and son, Bruce, marks a transition from detached liberal philanthropy to engaged conservative crime fighting. Bruce’s generous parents live at a safe distance from the city in a protected mansion. Bruce converts to conservatism the old-fashioned way–a liberal mugged, not so much by reality, as by, well, a mugger who kills his parents. Delicate, liberal philanthropy collapses in the face of violent evil; Bruce is left with fear and nihilism, the pointlessness of his life. His response is to create a purpose for his life by exploring and striving to overcome his fears.
Some years later, after a parole hearing for his parents’ murderer, who is himself shot down by mobsters against whom he had promised to testify, Bruce reenters the city and visits Falcone, the local mob king. When Bruce proclaims his fearlessness, Falcone (Tom Wilkinson) schools him on his ignorance of city life: “You think you have nothing to lose. This is a world you can never understand and you always fear what you don’t understand.” He has Bruce beaten and tossed into the streets.
Bruce then vanishes, immerses himself in an international criminal underworld, and eventually resurfaces in a Bhutanese jail, from which he is freed by Ducard (Liam Neeson), head of the League of Shadows, a vigilante group that mercilessly executes justice and conspires to push modern cities into acts of self-destruction, after which there might be a possibility to start anew. According to Ducard, civilization at its very pinnacle breeds corruption. Ducard trains Wayne in Ninja-style combat and educates him to overcome fear. He taunts Bruce that his parents’ death was not his fault, but rather that of his father who was not prepared to act in the face of evil.
Hope in a “Wasteland
The opening third of the film, which alternates between flashbacks to Bruce’s youth and scenes in the jail and Ducard’s training camp, is the segment of Batman’s life that Nolan sought to tell. In a sense, the film’s justification rests on the success of this initial segment and how well it paves the path for Batman’s appearance in Gotham. Nolan takes enormous risks here, in the use of an Asian setting and in the attention given to the philosophical probing of fear, power, and justice. The setting–much of it was filmed on a glacier in Iceland–is a jarring contrast to Gotham, yet its very remoteness and physical austerity set an appropriate mood. Neesan aptly describes the glacier as a “gorgeous Beckett wasteland.”
References to a “Beckett wasteland” are quite apt. Nietzschean themes run through the film. Bruce Wayne aspires to make himself extraordinary by becoming more than a man and by shattering the conventional distinction between the legal and the illegal; hence, his time among the criminals performing illegal acts without ever becoming one of them. He also strives to transform himself into pure performance. He gives a radical twist to what might otherwise seem a mere platitude in the film, “It’s not what you are underneath but what you do that defines you.” But Batman is not finally an amoralist; he resists, rather than welcomes, nihilism. He aims to defend and inspire those ordinary citizens whom the League of Shadows, in fine Nietzschean fashion, deems useless and expendable.
Nolan’s Batman may be a bit too reflective for traditional devotees, although they will find that they have not waited in vain for the Gotham combat scenes or the batmobile car chases. Others may object that Bruce Wayne’s musings are not entirely coherent; but the discussions of justice, never separated from the topic of the exercise of physical force, have a point. They underscore the sheer difficulty of gaining any clarity about justice in such a forlorn world. Bruce Wayne’s refusal to join the League of Shadows indicates that he sees some limitations to, or restraints upon, his own enforcement of justice. He has not given up hope for the inhabitants of modern cities such as Gotham. In this respect, the hopeful idealism of his parents maintains a crucial, if residual, influence on him.
Another way Batman distinguishes himself from the members of the League of Shadows is that he is never completely cut off from those operating within the civilized world; nor does he desire to be isolated in this way. Batman teams up with one of the only decent cops left, Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), a cop, near despair, whose initial suspicions of Batman give way to hope and collaboration. There is also Rachel (Katie Holmes in a performance that only makes you think of Dawson’s Creek a couple times), Batman’s childhood friend, who now works as a prosecutor and persistently reminds Bruce of his parents’ legacy. Finally, there is Alfred (played flawlessly by Michael Caine), the family butler who continues to act as a father figure for Bruce and who, at a crucial point in the film, counsels him not to get “lost inside the monster.” That is precisely the risk for someone who has consciously chosen to become a monster, a gargoyle in Godless Gotham, whose goal is to fend off monsters, to intimidate through fear those who would terrorize the innocent.
–Thomas Hibbs, an NRO contributor, is author of Shows About Nothing.